In most English sentences, the verb is active. However, in some circumstances there is a reason to use the passive voice instead. In this case, the object becomes the subject.

The dog bit Carl. ® Carl was bitten by the dog.


The passive voice is used only when there is a compelling reason (see below):


Forming the Passive





simple present

Ben writes articles.

Articles are written by Ben.

pres. progressive

Ben is writing an article.

An article is being written by Ben.

present perfect

Ben has written an article.

An article has been written by Ben.

simple past

Ben wrote an article.

An article was written by Ben.

past. progressive

Ben was writing an article (when he heard the good news.

An article was being written by Ben (when the good news came).

past perfect

Ben had written six articles before one was published.

Six articles had been written by Ben.

simple future

Ben will write an article for the Times.

An article will be written for the times by Ben.

be going to

Ben is going to write an article next week.

An article is going to be written by Ben next week.



Reasons to use the passive:





When the agent (doer) is well-known or is not important


Oranges are grown in California.

To focus attention on the receiver or result of an action (emphasize the receiver)


Six people were killed by a tornado.

To hide the identity of the agent (doer) The speaker/writer wants to be tactful or evasive.


She was given bad advice.

An error was made in the newsletter.

To retain the same grammatical subject.


George Forman beat Michael Morer, but was beaten by Mike Tyson.




The effect of the change into the passive is to reverse the positions of the noun phrases acting as subject and object in the active sentence. Active sentences which have a noun phrase or pronoun as object can be made passive. However, a few verbs which take an object do not have a passive: they include have (as in I have a small car), and hold (as in This jar holds one liter). Also, the passive is sometimes not possible when the object is a clause.


With verbs like give, which can have two objects, it is usually the first object (the indirect object) that becomes subject of the passive clause:


The department gave him no authority to make such a decision.

~He was given no authority to make such a decision.

Send questions or comments to Mary Nell Sorensen (, Webmaster
Copyright 1997